U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Gov. Jim Doyle and Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen toured Crave Brothers Farm near Waterloo on Friday.
Charles, George, Tom and Mark Crave spoke to the officials about their 1,200-cow dairy operation, state-of-the-art, on-farm cheese plant and anaerobic manure digester.
"We realize we've been blessed with incredible natural resources," Charles Crave said.
The Crave Brothers hosted the 2009 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days at their farm in July and were recognized as the 2008 World Dairy Expo Dairymen of the Year.
They told officials how they took one step at a time to build their farm from a small dairy operation in 1978 to the 1,800-acre set up it is today where 65 people are employed.
"We produce value-added milk," George Crave explained. "We are not just converting milk into cheese. We are converting it into high-value specialty cheese, not mass-produced cheese."
George went on to note that their cheese business has enjoyed a 20% growth each year since they built the original plant in 2002.
"We more than tripled the size of our cheese factory in five years," George said, noting that they put a large addition onto the cheese plant a year ago."
Charles explained that the family didn't have the money to build the cheese plant, expand the dairy and put in a manure digester all in the past seven years, but they felt the digester fit into their farming operation and it was the best time to put one in.
"So we partnered with Clear Horizons, a company who owns the digester," Charles said. "They get the electricity and sell it to the electric company and we get the liquid manure which we use as fertilizer on our farm."
The digester produces enough electricity to power the farm and the cheese plant and about 120 homes. The separated solids are made into an organic potting mix called EnerGro, a non-peat based potting mix that is sold by the bag to landscaping businesses.
Following the Craves' presentation, government officials and reporters were given a guided tour of the farm and cheese plant by the brothers.
Following the tour, Vilsack spoke.
"I believe we are on the cusp of a new rural economy," he said. "The Crave Brothers farm is an excellent example of a successful modern dairy that uses green energy sources to power the farm, cheese factory and 120 homes."
Vilsack praised the Craves for working hard and having the vision to build such a successful dairy operation, cheese plant and manure digester.
"The Crave Brothers have done precisely what other farmers across the country need to do if we are to allow rural America to grow again," Vilsack said. "This is really an impressive operation. I will be talking about you folks all over the country."
Vilsack said the USDA is interested in partnering with other farmers on projects that will bring jobs to rural America.
"In the past, we partnered with convenience stores that were built in rural communities through Rural Development," Vilsack explained. "But a convenience store isn't going to produce 65 jobs. We want to provide resources to farm families."
Other state and national officials visiting the farm included U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Nancy Sutley, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
Vilsack also answered questions from the media about the $121 billion ag spending bill that the House passed on Wednesday and the Senate approved on Thursday that is awaiting President Obama's signature. The bill includes $58.2 billion for the food stamp program which represents a 19% increase above current levels. The bill also includes $350 million in aid to cash-strapped dairy farmers of which $290 million will go directly to farmers. The other $60 million will be used by the government to purchase surplus cheese to give to food banks.
Vilsack was quite pleased with how quickly the bill was passed.
"This is the first time since 1999 we've passed a budget bill this early," he told reporters. "Normally, we have to wait months and months for this bill to be signed. The new fiscal year just began on Oct. 1."
When asked how the direct payments to dairy farmers would be made, Vilsack said, "We are in the process of working that out. We want to make sure the payments get out as quickly as possible. We are trying to figure out how to make the payments as fair as possible," he noted. "Very shortly after the president signs the bill, we will announce how we're going to distribute the direct payments."
Vilsack said the payments will not be made through the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program because many larger dairies have already maxed out their payments. He is looking for a way to distribute the money that will allow payments to be made to small and mid-sized farms as well as large dairies. He assured reporters the payments would be made as quickly as possible.
He also says he is studying how to revamp the Federal Milk Marketing Orders and would like to come up with a system that pays all farmers more fairly for their milk.
"I'm not sure how we're going to do that, but I do know this, nobody is benefiting from this boom bust cycle in dairying."